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Learning Startup Culture

How Improv Acting Makes Better Technologists

Students in Brenda Harger's improv class at CMU's Entertainment Technology Center (Photo: Chris Klug)

At Carnegie Mellon University, software engineers and future technologists are taking improvisational acting classes to help them get good jobs in the entertainment technology industry.

The rules of improv are simple, but strict: be fun to play with; serve the narrative—no matter what is said, think “Yes, and…”; and make your partner look good. These principles may apply equally for collaborative teams.

“If I were to reduce what I teach to two principles, it would be respect and real-time problem solving,” says improv instructor Brenda Harger, a professor of entertainment technology at CMU’s Entertainment Technology Center. “The rules of improv put all of the focus outside of oneself and the only way to keep the rules is to say ‘Yes.’ Improv is inherently collaborative and positive.”

Designed to promote spontaneity, risk taking, storytelling, and teamwork, Harger’s class is one of the few mandatory courses in the Entertainment Technology Center’s unique Graduate Program for the Left Brain and Right Brain. This interdisciplinary program was founded by the late Randy Pausch, a Carnegie Mellon computer science professor known for his The Last Lecture series and best-selling book of the same title, and recently retired CMU drama and arts management professor Don Marinelli. The two men celebrated “whole-brain” thinking and set a mission “to foster leadership in education and research that combines technology and fine arts to create new processes, tools and vision for storytelling and entertainment,” as the program’s website states.

The curriculum favors “hands-on” experience over theoretical experience so that graduates hit the ground running in industry. In addition to improv, there are a couple of other core “maker” courses, such as Building Virtual Worlds, in which, with little direction, teams of four students must create interactive experiences on various platforms in just two weeks, before shuffling teams and doing it all again.

Students in an improv class at CMU's Entertainment Technology Center

Students in an improv class at CMU’s Entertainment Technology Center

After their first semester, known as “bootcamp,” students spend their remaining three semesters working full-time on projects for “clients.” Students must design, develop, test, iterate, and deliver to the client—a corporation, foundation, school, or museum—a prototype of their “solution” in 15 weeks. Projects run the gamut from animatronic robots to novel applications for consumer hardware such as Microsoft’s Kinect, the iPhone, or the iPad, to games that aim to promote social change.

“The projects are really astounding, but what we are teaching is how to work well in teams, managing each other as well as a client and a large project with a strict deadline. The stress is like the theatre: no matter how innovative or bold the scope, the curtain must go up in 15 weeks!” says Rebecca Lombardi, the program’s Director of Admission and Marketing.

Carnegie Mellon is known for its strength in both fine arts and technology, making it an ideal host for a left-brain/right-brain curriculum. Graduates have landed at Pixar, Disney, Electronic Arts, and Zynga. Others have started their own companies or joined initiatives aimed at using entertainment technology skills to solve the pressing problems of the world.

Eben Myers, a 2004 graduate, is VP of Design at Etcetera Edutainment, a Pittsburgh-based company that delivers game-based tools called SimCoach Solutions to train and coach people using mobile devices. Myers has applied his game design skills to dozens of game-based training products for large workforces in manufacturing, retail, and healthcare.

Myers says he uses skills from his improvisational acting classes in his work. “Improv informed my ability to lead and to work alongside my co-workers. Every day I collaborate with my team and my clients. And, fundamentally, I collaborate with the people playing our games. The design of our products incorporates the rules of improv to create compelling learning experiences. Our products must be fun to play with, they must serve the player’s narrative, and they must make the player look good and help them succeed. This is true of designing games in general but even more important in designing games for behavior change.”

“Everyone can benefit from improv,” says Harger. “All of improv is storytelling.  Stories help us find order, solve problems, engage emotionally, collaborate, and think metaphorically.”

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